Are You In Good Shape or Do You Just Have a High Pain Tolerance?

March 18, 2010

I was thinking about something the other day when killing myself on the stepmill machine doing intervals at the highest setting. Am I able to push hard at the highest setting because I am in decent shape, or is it just because I am a sicko who can push through pain? Part of me thinks that I am just good at pushing hard even when my body tells me to back off. In the spring and summer I play tennis for hours with a good friend of mine who is the same age and works out year round as well. We are both winded and drenched with sweat within 30 minutes of playing, but push on. Again I ask myself, am I in good shape or do I simply have a high pain tolerance. Let’s discuss this topic in more detail. I don’t have a concrete answer, but would love to explore this idea with you guys and get your feedback as well.


[Just another cool photo that has nothing to do with the article. I didn’t want to show people in pain, plus this photo blends in well with the colors and shades of my site.]

Let’s Talk About “Linda” and Her Struggles With Weight Loss

I used to manage a woman named Linda. Linda was 52 years old and had been overweight her entire life. She did everything wrong as far as keeping her weight under control. Linda was a big-time compulsive eater and ate every 2 hours the entire day, to “keep her metabolism from slowing down”. She even lectured me about this on a regular basis, saying that my metabolism would slow down if I continued to eat just a few times per day. She gave everyone diet tips and the two years she worked for me she stayed 100+ pounds overweight the entire time. Linda said she couldn’t exercise due to fibromyalgia.

“When I Try to Exercise, It Hurts Boss!”

Linda’s excuse for not exercising was her “fibromyalgia”. Fibromyalgia is a legitimate condition where people feel fatigued and have body-wide pain, but there are many people who do as Linda did and claim they have this condition as an excuse to be lazy. Linda was not diagnosed by a doctor, she said that it was obvious because when she exercised it “hurt.” When I asked her what her symptoms were she said that her legs would get a burning sensation when she rode an exercise bike and she would breath “really hard” even just walking on a treadmill. “Boss…when I walk at the same speed as other people I breath a lot harder and it hurts….I tried to lift weights once and it hurt for 4 days. I hate having fibromyalgia!”

Do Fit People Simply Have a Higher Pain Tolerance?

The thing about pain is that you can’t tell how much pain someone else is feeling. When I am doing an intense interval session it hurts “quite a bit”, during the sprinting part. I don’t feel like anything is being damaged, but it takes mental discipline to keep pushing. Pain tolerance is a weird thing as well. Two people can feel the same amount of pain and mentally cope with it in different ways. I am positive that my interval hurts me much more than Linda’s walking speed hurts Linda. The difference is that I know that the reward will be worth it and part of me likes to see how far I can push myself. Linda simply has a personality where she searches for the path of least resistance. Unfortunately that is the path of least reward as well.

The Skill of Pushing Through Pain, Creates Elite Athletes

I believe that pushing through pain (not injury) is what allows your body to reach the next level of conditioning. I am convinced that some of the fittest athletes in the world simply operate longer and more often on the edge of pain – adapt – and then push to the next level. Once they reach the next higher level of conditioning they push to the edge of pain again and they continue to progress.

Here is An Entertaining Fact About Pain Tolerance…

Swearing can actually increase pain tolerance. Here is an excerpt from the article I’m linking to, which describes a recent study examining pain tolerance.

They recruited 67 undergraduates, and asked to make two short lists of words – one containing five words they might use after hitting themselves on the thumb with a hammer, the other containing five words they might use to describe a table. The participants submerged one of their hands into room temperature water for three minutes, to provide a standardized starting point, then transferred it to a container of cold water and instructed to keep it submerged for as long as they could. In one condition, they were told to repeat the first swear word they had included in their list; in another, they repeated one of the words describing a table.

Contrary to their hypothesis, they found that swearing actually reduced the amount of pain felt. The participants kept their hands submerged in the cold water longer, and also reported experiencing less pain, when they repeated a swear word than when they repeated a word describing a table. Swearing was also associated with increased heart rate.

Swearing therefore enabled the participants to tolerate to the cold temperature for longer, and also caused a reduction in their perception of the pain felt. A difference between males and females was observed. Swearing led to a greater reduction in pain perception and a bigger increase in heart rate in females

“Damn this F@#&%N Interval Workout!”

I would probably attempt to swear during intervals, but I am typically out of breath…plus I’d get booted out of the gym. Swearing has come in handy a few times when I’ve stubbed my toe or hit my head. I actually believe jumping around helps ease pain tolerance as well. If I hit my head, knee, or “funny bone”…I can’t stand still. A few F-bombs and circling around or jumping around when I jam my toe works wonders. Who made up the name funny bone anyway? It is anything but funny when you hit that part of your arm!

What’s Your Opinion on Being Fit Vs Tolerating Pain?

I would love to hear your opinions on this subject matter. I think there are some people who so probably feel more pain, but my guess in that a large portion of the population simply lives a life of seeking the path of least resistance. There is always some type of discomfort to be expected or price to be paid for anything worthwhile…right?

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{ 89 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew March 18, 2010 at 7:02 pm

I think the two definitely go hand in hand. As I was reading the article, elite athletes came to mind before I read the part where you mentioned them.

Elite athletes are the ones who are fit AND have a high pain tolerance.

Exercise is hard work. Getting SUPER fit is VERY hard work. One of my favorite spin instructors constantly pushes my pain barrier. I mentally swear at her in my head going “I ****ing HATE YOU RIGHT NOW!” But you know, what? It pays off. The pain is worth it.

And most of the time, the pain feels good, because you know it’s only making you stronger.

Lazarus March 18, 2010 at 7:18 pm

That swearing link is hilarious Rusty!

I have two perspectives on this. The first (and this is mostly due to my experiences in the gym) is that it is important to push through your pain, which I look at as pushing past my comfort zone.

However, as a runner, I find it is also important to listen to your body. Sometimes, I need to let the pain win, or else I risk serious injuries.

Has Linda tried incrementally increasing her pain tolerance? From your post, it seems that there is a major laziness factor.

Rick March 18, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Cool post! Never really thought of it that way, buy I am guessing that in most cases, a person who works out at a high intensity often would have a higher tolerance than a sedentary person.

Also, I absolutely love when I get bad diet and exercise advice/lectures from people who are overweight and extremely out of shape-very comical. I just have to smile and nod.

Anonymous March 18, 2010 at 7:28 pm

There is definitely something to the idea that a lower pain tolerance can legitimately make an “average” workout harder for one person than it might for someone else in the same physical condition.

Something I’ve noticed about myself, and that a person like Linda might also experience, is that if you’ve never been athletic or have little to no experience with intense exercise, it’s difficult to know what kind of pain is to be expected and what might be a sign that you’ve overdone it, or have injured yourself. When I was younger (and invincible 🙂 ), I’d have assumed almost any amount of pain was normal and not worried about it. But I’m 35 now, and if I get injured at this point, I could end up with a chronic, nagging injury that stays with me for the rest of my life. For that reason, I’m very hesitant to push myself too hard. I know there are people older than me who are doing much more intense exercise, but I think it’s different for people who have been conditioned for all or most of their lives, versus someone starting at ground zero.

Interesting post, Rusty — a lot of food for thought.

Joe March 18, 2010 at 7:52 pm


Lately I have been using a rowing machine for cardio just for something a little more intense. It seems to me when I hit 5 minutes going as hard as I can I find myself in a mental argument with the machine, it goes something like this ” I hate this piece of s^&t machine” and it seems to keep going on it marry little way then I say ” F&(K you, F&*k you” a ton of times and it seems I try and push even harder like I’m trying to win a competition. Swearing brings the competitiveness, and male drive out in me!!!! I SWEAR!! lol thought I share that

Sera-Jane March 18, 2010 at 7:52 pm

I totally agree with you – no pain no gain
It’s all in the mind, focus on what you would like the result to be and stop coming up with excuses “path of least resistance”

D'Elephant March 18, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Well Rusty, I believe in the saying “pain is just weakness leaving the body”. When I interval train, it intense, and yes somewhere during the middle of an intense interval section there is a little voice that says “Dude are nuts….quit!!”

But when I think of the rewards e.g., walking around South Beach MIA with my shirt off while my friends are to self conscious to do the same… It’s enough to motivation for me to push through the pain.

It’s not sick to push through the pain, rather I think it’s CRAZY if at the first hint of pain or discomfort (without injury) someone would consider quiting… Dude, a fat gut with smooth arms and legs with a bird chest is definitely NOT hot!

-that my 2 cents
Remain awesome Rusty

Charlie March 18, 2010 at 8:21 pm

I think you make a legitimate point, and would go so far as to guess that “laziness” or “pain intolerance” makes up for 75% of the reasons so many are out of shape. Other 25% being genetic limitations or poor exercise/workout methods. Starting as a flabby and out-of-shape high schooler to now, a non-flabby and in-shape grad student, it took me a few years to realize that I was cutting my progress short by limiting workouts based on pain (not running the extra 1/2 mile because I was short on breath, not doing another set because I would feel strain).

I imagine that many like me, having relatively inactive pasts, had no one pushing them through the pain (like an athletics coach) and aren’t accustomed to doing that when they begin exercising on their own. I had to change my mindset (and I still today continually remind myself) that exercising and working out is more about perseverance and consistently striving to better yourself, which involves continuously pushing yourself past pain and onto the next level. I wasted many of my early exercising efforts not realizing this, and only saw minor results. It wasn’t until I made perseverance a daily exercise principle that my body began to transform. The resulting physical transformation is really the icing on the cake as this mindset also begins to transform other areas of your life too. I’m certain there is a strong correlation between being in shape and successful, but that is a topic for another time and day.

Clay March 18, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Rusty this is very true,

I go to the United States Coast Guard Academy and before my class actually became a part of the corps of cadets, we had to endure Swab Summer, the equivalent of a 7 week boot camp. When we did something wrong we would all do IT or Incentive Training. Exercises would include holding a push-up in the down position and leg lifts, with full uniform and boots for several minutes.
Now because these are body weight exercises we can assume that the intensity was relatively proportional for every one meaning it was just as hard for me to do an exercise as it was for someone else. So why would people quit before I did? The answer in my mind can only be mental toughness or pain tolerance like you said.
We all did the same workouts all summer so at some point we all were in similar shape. Yet some people just couldn’t hold out. Now if you looked at the bodies of those that did complete the exercises and those that couldn’t. Well those who had mental toughness to complete 5 minutes of leg lifts without stopping usually had more defined abs than those who couldn’t.
Just a real life example in my experiences that back up what your are saying.

Loic March 18, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Hi there,
I absolutly love reading through your email everyday. I’m a fitness fan and I want to thank you for all the tips, articles and videos.
About the topic (good shape or simply more tolerant?), I’d say the best way to have a relevant answer would be to train with heart monitor and see how quick you recover from an interval… but at the end of the day, I really think that it’s impossible to reach the optimum “good shape” without being a sicko because it’s hard to rise your heart and tolerance threshold (this is what I can define as: ‘shape’) without pushing yourself every now and then to the limit.
Best regards.

Darren March 18, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I believe you are right on with this! I think some folks don’t like to push through pain or run from pain. I think you may have to push through pain sometimes to get the results you might want.

David Nyman March 18, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Rusty, you’re surely on the money when you say that people in practice have different tolerance for pain, different strategies for dealing with it, and so forth. Physical differences apart, I think the crucial factor in this must be what the pain MEANS to someone. If it means “this is making me stronger, faster: great – that’s what I need to achieve my goals” then the pain is a signal of success. But if it means “this is a threat, I might get hurt” then it’s a signal to stop. So the question is, how does these associations get created in the first place, and how can they be changed?

Jase March 18, 2010 at 8:48 pm

What if they are not mutually exclusive? Elite athletes can operate at a high level for a longer time because they are in good shape and have a high pain tolerance. Just my thoughts.

Nate March 18, 2010 at 9:09 pm

I’m about the farthest thing from an expert, but my personal experience tells me that there’s something to this idea. After a sedentary but skinny first 25 years of life, I decided that I wanted to run 10k. It didn’t take long to get there, but each step of the way was about pushing my pain threshold. For the final push, I literally told myself, “the only way off the treadmill is to finish, or to pass out”.
That wound up being a springboard for me to get in much better shape, and to ultimately enjoy pushing my physical limits and overcoming that pain. Until then, I really was a “path of least resistance” guy.

Tamara of In the Night Farm March 18, 2010 at 9:33 pm

I think you’re dead-on about higher pain tolerance increasing individual fitness capacity. The downside is that we “sickos” are more likely to overtrain or push to the point of injury — but I’ll risk it. 😉

Tim S March 18, 2010 at 9:46 pm

You said a mouthful, Rusty! I do believe you’re right. Nice call!

Patrick March 18, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Funny you mention pain. I recently got back into the gym and I’ve been more sorethan I can remember being in years. It hurts, but it’s fun to see how far I can push myself. Don’t suppose you have any tips for sore muscles?

Etienne March 18, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Hey Rusty,

I’ve never been sure about the famous saying “no pain, no gain” in sports and fitness. I mean, doesn’t the idea of ‘grease the groove’ almost run counter to that? Still, with HIIT, I definitely have to push myself through a barrier or two to complete my workout. Even this morning, it took A LOT of concentrating on the imaginary finish line I set for myself that I was able to complete my ideal number of rounds, and so on.

I have to admit, at times, just before I begin HIIT, or am doing the last set of an exercise, I do get a strange, very brief flitter of anxiety or something. I don’t know if it’s fear of the pain, or more fear that the pain will stop me from completing my exercise properly (I’m a bit of a stickler/perfectionist sometimes about that). But I’ve been trying to just ignore the feeling and well, not to sound cliche, but…’just do it.’ Heh.

Kat Eden March 18, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Very well-written article, thank-you! I found your description of Linda so spot-on. I’m pretty sure I must have trained the same woman … in about 10 different bodies (:-)). And I’m still never sure at what point to stop pretending to empathise and start telling them to stop being such a wuss and suck it up!

Of course maybe they really are in an unusual amount of real pain but I think – for the most part – it really is just a bad case of the ‘woe-is-me’s’.

I don’t have an answer to your question as such, although surely a higher pain tolerance would inevitably lead to increased fitness?? Of course there’s also the question of working smarter not harder, i.e. some people seem to delight in telling everyone how they’ve done hours and hours of cardio despite hardly any sleep etc but they probably should have done a short and intense interval or weight session and saved themselves all the added oxidative stress. Harder is not necessarily a good thing; at least not when it means endurance over anaerobic. That’s my two cents worth, anyway 🙂

Zlatan March 18, 2010 at 10:16 pm

I totally agree with the idea that some people just handle the same amount of pain in different ways. I was a victim to this. I used to be nicely built and got a little cocky thinking that I could go easier on working out and eating more and less cardio. In fact I was so bored of cardio and interval training that I used the excuse “the personal trainer told me not to do cardio when trying to gain muscle”. Then I had to deal with the consequences. Now when I do interval training my legs kill and it makes me want to just go home and lay down and sleep and relax with my girlfriend, but I know that when I am done I will be more happy with being fit and dealing with a little pain than being out of shape. Also I noticed that I get used to the pain and can later push myself harder.

I totally agree with the swearing part, because I let loose with every swear word from A-Z when I get hurt or hit myself by accident. But I also noticed that working out or doing any form of exercise helps me deal with stress. When I am working out, I am in my own world and let everything out especially when lifting weights.


Dave March 18, 2010 at 10:51 pm

It’s definitely a psychological barrier that people need to break through. People can do all the goal setting they want but if can’t call upon them in those crucial moments in your workout (ie. can I really get those last 2 reps?) then they’re worthless statements on paper.

What gets me going is the thought of someone working harder then me at this very moment!


kfoo March 18, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Rusty! Hey man the new banner at the top looks GREAT! Much more fitting of you and FBB. That and its a little more safe for work ; )

Awesome post! I could rant forever on this topic and it’s something I think about every time I work out. No pain, no gain! It’s as simple as that and I agree 100%. Our bodies continuously adapt to make our general day-to-day activities easier and more comfortable. If you want to progress from bad shape to good shape or from good to excellent, you will have to continue pushing your body to its limit.

I really enjoy seeing people in they gym push themselves and truly focus on giving it all they’ve got. It’s unfortunate that the majority of gym goers really seem to be wasting their time. How can you think that an hour on the elliptical machine while reading US Weekly is productive in the least? I’m willing to bet if those 67 undergraduates were required to read with their hands in the cold water they wouldn’t make it past the first paragraph.

Genetics, professional training, and pain tolerance aside… how many books do you think this guy finished while working out?

Tracey March 19, 2010 at 1:44 am

Try Arnica gel for sore muscles. I use it every time I have a leg ache or low back pain and it takes the pain right away. Of course, you should also drink plenty of water, stretch and do some sort of active rest on the days you take off from working out.

Jesus Sanchez March 19, 2010 at 1:44 am

As a former fighter, we learned to not fight the pain, but work through it (accepting it). Obviously it didn’t happen overnight, but when I learned how to let pain go, it did just that. When I switched to long distance running, I found sprints effective but GRUELING. I applied the “letting go” method, and I was even able to time how long the pain would last. What this allowed me to do was learn when the pain would pass so that I could anticipate the next “kick” during my sprints.

Yeah, f-bombs have a place, but learning to have a high pain tolerance comes in many forms.

Jesus Sanchez

Arthur March 19, 2010 at 2:00 am

Hi Rusty,

just yesterday I left early from gym because I felt tired and weak, and the determination just wasn’t there…
And this morning when I got up I felt like a real looser, asking myself whether it was really worth it skipping the session?
Then I thought up plenty of excuses, like I didn’t have much to eat yesterday, and I’m still sore etc etc.
To be frank, I was just lazy… Thanks for showing me that.
Going to push so much harder now, swearing at the weights!


Yavor March 19, 2010 at 2:59 am

One of my friends and fellow trainer, also nationally ranked long jump competitor, has a saying that you aren’t really training until it starts to be hard or hurt. Adaptations do not come until you push yourself past the barrier of your comfort.

Here is him goofing around in the gym doing a sommersault lol:

And here is him doing a ridiculously high (in my opinion lol) hurdle jump:

So you are right on point man, if you want to change your fitness level, you gotta push yopurself…

Rahul March 19, 2010 at 3:25 am

Gem of a post Rusty!!! Very thought Provoking….. There will never be any absolute answers, I think because there is no absolute way of measuring quantum of pain or of measuring intensity of pain being felt by two different people doing the same exercise…… Also, who is to say what is legitimate amount of pain and what is not?

So somewhere I guess, “Its all mental” and boy is that an idea worth believing in or what??? May not be true and yes there is such a thing as overtraining and injuring yourself but it’s a way more positive thing to believe in than the alternative ie: my body is telling me to stop now, so let me not take a risk with this…..

Somewhere even the amount of pain felt correlates strongly to our motivation levels….simialr to Zlatan above, I find I have been getting lazy with cardio lately….I skip on cardio and find that on the days that I do HIIT i can run for lesser time…..

I kept telling myself that my stamina has gone down since I am not doing cardio as frequently, but even before reading your article I kind of knew at the back of my mind that it’s not that, its just that I am giving up sooner as I am not that motivated anymore…earlier (when my main focus was on reducing weight) I wud keep thinking of soccer players like Ronaldo, Figo etc…and keep going even when in pain… it’s more like the moment I start getting tired I just say “Ok, enough Cardio….” and stop…..

Btw, totally agree with Charlie above on how pushing yourself during physical acivities tends to affect your approach to other things in life as well……interesting to think about and another reason to exercise regularly…

Hmmmm, definitely gonna push myself harder now….and oh yes, better start revising those swear words :-))))……..


Andy March 19, 2010 at 4:22 am

The Linda story simply backs up the idea that overweight people always have an excuse.

In my experience, it is easy to tell the difference between the general burning pain of a workout and something genuinely problematic like joint pain, it just feels completely different, when I first started doing dips I had a reaction in my shoulder blade so I didnt do them for a while, didnt stop me from doing something else though.

You needs to ‘get off’ on that burning pain, last summer I remember grinning as I lay on the floor of my garage gym with the sweat forming a puddle on the floor after an intense circuit workout, time to feel that again I think after somewhat slacking off during winter.

Rajiv March 19, 2010 at 5:53 am

Great post Rusty, I absolutely agree with this statement. If the mind gives up the body will follow even if it could potentially continue. If you are mentally prepared for the pain and become accustomed to it you can push yourself through the pain barrier on a consistent basis, this makes the biggest difference in improvement. Other examples of having the right mindset would be when you are listening to motivating music or being around people in the gym who are very driven, I believe you can push much harder in these instances.

As for pro athletes, they become accustomed to pain very early on in their careers and embrace it as part of their ultimate goal/s. This is mainly a learned skill even though some people may be naturally more able to tolerate pain.

Niklas March 19, 2010 at 6:09 am

Imagine this: a person learning the play the guitar and stopping all the times because “the sound he produces is so bad and it hurts his ears” Going nowhere uh?

Mark March 19, 2010 at 9:05 am

One of the main reasons I have been successful in my years of training is that I train w/ intensity. I don’t think that I have a higher tolerance for pain than most people, but I do approach training with a different mindset.

I go to the gym with a plan and mentally prepared to train aggressively and hard. A lot of that has to do w/ not listening to your mind when it wanders or attempts to sabotage your workout.

I do this by actively engaging in self-talk and keeping myself psyched up. Being athletic by nature, it’s very much like playing a game – giving it your all when you are out on the field, up to bat, or on the ice.

Rafi Bar-Lev March 19, 2010 at 9:17 am

Long time since I’ve commented here Rusty,

This is a really interesting post. There have actually been studies linking physical training with increased mental fortitude. Our mind and bodies are linked, so obviously there’s some kind of link, much like the “mind-muscle” connection you talk about sometimes.

That being said, I think the more experience you have, the more you’re able to push yourself because you know how much you can handle without getting injured. We can push our bodies way passed capacity with our minds (which is why I’m still in physical therapy for a tendon injury), but that should be saved for an emergency and not used for HIIT. 😉


Dan in Michigan March 19, 2010 at 10:10 am

Rusty, I just discovered your site last week, and I’m really enjoying reading through all the posts. I’ve incorporated several of your teachings, too.
Working through the pain was something I learned to do as a youngster, playing hockey. It took me awhile to “get it,” about trying to do MORE than what the coaches are asking, in order to improve. Later in life, in my late-20’s, I took up martial arts, and it was the same thing — hurt like hell at first, but eventually you come out the other side, and it takes an extraordinary workout to bring the pain.
I have no patience with the fibromyalgia-people, btw — I have a sister and a sister-in-law, both professing to suffer from this “disease,” which I like to call “Middle-Aged Aches-And-Pains-And-Laziness.” There may be a few (very few) people with a legitimate condition that makes it too painful for them to work out, but the epidemic is a bad joke, and an excuse for people to loll around doped-up on pain meds.

IN terms of someone using mind-over-matter to push through pain, I saw the most amazing document recently, the BBC documentary on Eddie Izzard’s “Marathon Man” self-challenge. I recommend it to everyone, not as a workout program, because it’s insane, but just as a shining example of how the human mind can overcome the body. You can find it on the internet, as I did, but I also noticed it was broadcast on BBC America. It’s out there, and you should check it out. Izzard is a mad bastard! 🙂

Rachel March 19, 2010 at 10:15 am


First, thank you for all your effort on this site and for pointing me in the direction of Anthony Bova whose Spartan Helath Regime, I am currently reading. I feel like I am finally realizing what it is all about if you know what I mean. Also, have been doing your ninja treadmill stuff to try to push through a wall I have been at for more than a year despite 5-6 days of pretty intense consistant training. Just can’t seem to get that last 5# of fat!

About this post:
It is very tempting to think of people like Linda as “lazy” and write them off. And believe me, in my way of thinking “she” (and there are an infinity of carbon copies of her) is what we would think of as lazy. But these are the people that actually have potential and although they are more needy than we are, we should encourage them within the paradigm they live in. We are self-motivated, willing to do hard work, and don’t need an external source of energy to push us to do our best. The other personality type is the victim. they need outside sources of motivation, they need to be coddled, and they need to COMPLAIN about it! I have seen these people with trainers at my gym. they spend their $65 to have someone to cry to as they are “forced” to exercise. But bottom line, they are exercising so they are doing better than all the other fat, unheatlhy, people living in a denial bubble.

Interesting that you use the word “pain” to describe the uncomfortable intensity sensation in working out. I have never thought of it that way. Pain is something i sometimes feel after a strength workout where I have delayed muscle soreness.

The “pain” you describe while actually working out I experience as extreme challenge, physical exertion, resistance. Maybe that is the difference. It is not the physical sensation that differs, just how your mind labels it and most importantly, how you resond behaviorally to it. Do you back down or do you push even harder? Those moments of extreme intensity, as I’m sure you have experienced, can also be of the most exhilirating as you experience the power, determination, and strength of your body.

The thing is that it takes some investment until you reach that point and that means that you have to make a decision that you are going to do it before you begin to see the payoffs both physical and emotional. I think that is fork in the road. I started off, 40# overweight after 2 kids and never had worked out and now I am “that girl in the weight area” that other people as for advice. why? Because I wanted it and I knew I was worth it. Pain wasn’t part of the equation.


Marion March 19, 2010 at 11:29 am

I definitely agree with this article. When I’m doing sprints, I have to totally push myself mentally for the last couple of sets. My breathing is usually pretty heavy, and my legs are burning, but I push through anyway. I find with my workouts if I don’t push, I don’t gain anything. I also agree that the fitter you are, the higher your pain tolerance. Take it from me, 3 kids and no pain medicine during labor 😉 All natural! I also notice that if I don’t push during my workout – I don’t feel as good afterwards.

Push hard, enjoy the results!

Bianca March 19, 2010 at 11:51 am

I swear a lot during the intervals! I am not loud but still.. Thats why I like IT a lot I think, it is a stress relief.. I try not to do intervals when a professor is around tho.. 🙂

I honestly believe that dieting/ fat loss is all about one’s personality.. I mean everyone likes eating tasty pastries, french fries etc.. But the ones who can actually tolerate pain (I think it hurts much more when all your friends are enjoying a nutella crepe while u are eating a salad) actually succeed.. That said I am still 5 pounds overweight.. lol 🙂

Donkey Lips March 19, 2010 at 12:32 pm

“Pain is mind over matter, if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter”

“Pain is weakness leaving the body” – another great quote used in the Marines.

I think by being sicko you are able to be in really good shape. In order to achieve an appealing physical stature of single digit body fat and larger, dense, defined muscle slabs covering your body you have to be a sicko. It takes so much mental toughness to forgo eating whenver and however much you want, laying on the couch watching tv and all the other liesurely things in life (for which there is certainly a time and place) But to consistently deny what’s easy and to push yourself hard both in the gym and with nutrition it takes a dedicated sicko. But then when you do enjoy the couch, the sun, or a good meal with some good alcohol the enjoyment is so much better because it really is a treat. Plus it feels good to know that you are mentally tougher than most people.

Just my thoughts on the topic…

gus March 19, 2010 at 12:46 pm

hi rusty.

i cant do an hard interval without saying the word” f…” after i am done, even if i`m completely out of breath i always manage to squeeze out the f word.
as for the pain barrier, i think it is important to expect pain to achieve your goals, makes sense for me to.

love this photo 😀

IPBrian March 19, 2010 at 12:47 pm

We probably are a bit messed up in the head, but I prefer to think of it as dedication and adherence to the goals I set for myself. I did actually hurt my back a week ago and have been sidelined for that time and in the foreseeable future at least for lifting, I am planning on a cardio session today on the stair mill (Rusty I don’t know how you keep up with sprints on the highest setting…UGH!). The week so far that I have taken off has been brutal, not because of the pain in my back, but because I am missing out on my workouts. I will also add that you can’t have self-diagnosed fibromyalgia…it is a serious condition, but one that has to be diagnosed by a clinical professional and meet some stringent requirements above and beyond reading a Wikipedia article…how ridiculous.

bmdyer2 March 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Yes and no.

The key to me is more “don’t be stupid”. Just “pushing through pain” can lead not only to fitness but terrible injuries. Dave Tate is a great example of an elite athlete who pushed through pain, but has had so many major injuries he’s held together by spit and baling wire.

Will getting in better shape involve discomfort? Absolutely. The key to me seems to be not ignoring the pain, but prizing your goal and the joy of exertion higher. And having the maturity the stop when “unnatural” things start happening in your joints and muscles.

It’s not courage if it lacks sense,

Michael Dyer

James March 19, 2010 at 2:04 pm

I probably don’t push through pain enough. I had a shoulder operation last October which meant I had to be careful for a bit, but it’s recovered enough that I should learn to push myself more.

Deanna March 19, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I actually agree with what Rachel said in her comment, where I don’t think of it as “pain.” It really sucks, but in my mind it doesn’t hurt the same way a papercut hurts. I also wonder how much endorphins come in to play. If you’re in good shape and used to the endorphins, then pushing through the “pain” wouldn’t be nearly as hard mentally as it would be for someone who never gets far enough into the workout to really experience the feel-good effects.

I wonder about the personalities of people like Linda. Seems to me that people like her have a good excuse for everything. Of course, I don’t know her personally, so I’m just speculating.

deb roby March 19, 2010 at 3:41 pm

LOVE this post. I’m not sure it’s pain tolerance and pure cussedness. Yes, the first time I worked with a trainer we worked for 20 minutes. I went home and had a metabolic reaction – sleeping for 2 hours HARD. And I hurt for 3 days. For me, that told me I needed to work harder than I had been.

Others feel some pain and think that they worked too hard. That if they worked well, there would be no pain. I’m not sure why.

It’s amazing how many people use health conditions to not exercise. Yet, I have seen clients working out with walkers, marathon runners with MS, etc. It’s not pain tolerance- it’s persistance.

Jacob March 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Been following you for a few months, but this post struck a chord with me, so I’m finally commenting. Hope my thoughts and comments are useful/helpful.

Personally, I love the burn part of workouts. However, I have come across some decently effective workouts that only involve breathing (controlled in different ways, using various parts of the diaphragm) or just flexing different muscles (even as general as upper body and lower body flexes for a few reps of a few seconds, consistently for months). I can’t imagine that they are painful, however, they aren’t nearly as effective as a other workouts. On the other hand, doing them regularly when you are at the beginning of the diminishing returns of the workout-to-reward curve is likely effective. Start simple, when it becomes easy, add a bit. Sometimes walking can be too big of a start, but most of us are able to breath and and flex muscles.

Also, another thought on the pain; sometimes its important to understand what is happening in the body. Muscles stretching, flexing, breaking/tearing a bit, etc. Its going to hurt and muscles have to rebuild/recover. The body is a dynamic, living thing. Cells are constantly dying and being discarded and replaced by new cells. The body adapts to what we ask it to do, regularly. Sometimes muscles get stiff and just need to be worked a bit to get some acid out, then you’re good to go. The body needs certain types of food to be able to rebuild/recover. That is a partly responsible, in my opinion, why eating “junk” food usually goes along with eating a lot; your body keeps asking for more, so it can get what it needs: quality or quantity to serve the body’s needs. (of course there are other reasons)

As far as being in shape, I was once told that it had little to do with what you could do (i.e. push through the pain). Being in shape is better gauged by how quickly your heart rate returns to normal. Ever since I heard this definition, it has proven to be accurate. Example: A well-trained sprinter will get their heart pumping even in a 10 second 100 meter, however, their heart rate doesn’t take very long to return to normal. On the other hand, another person may get their heart pumping doing a 20 second 100 meter and have it still pumping pretty hard minutes later.

Jason March 20, 2010 at 12:21 am

Hey Rusty Im new here, but love the site.

Im 5ft 11in. 171lbs(now). I just started working out again about 2 months ago, and have lost 14 lbs, mostly from change in diet. I started ESE this week as well.

But, I have Sickle Cell Anemia, as well as Avascular Necrosis of both hips, and I have to lose weight and get as much pressure off these hips, before they collapse…

Sickle Cell has given me a beastly high pain thresh hold and has landed me in the hospital a few times, because I just keep going. I guess if I had a different genetic make up I could be in good shape….but something always happens and sends me 2 steps back from where I started…So now I have none of my previous muscle definition, lost my abs, and cant look in the mirror without sucking in my stomach….But im working on it…hopefully I have learned my lesson…when it actually hurts…..stop lol

T March 20, 2010 at 9:49 am

I have Fibromyagia Dx by MD. I jump rope and do 1 arm KB swings (25lb) for 20 minutes on alternating days and resistance training. My total w/o time/week is the magic 4 hrs that I came to my self. When I was overweight, I worked out hard and too long 90 minutes/day 6-7 days week, with lots of cursing. I was inflammed everywhere. I felt sick when working out and after. Because I am a detremined person I just keeped push through it. When I finally began to deal with the inflammation, and workout smarter results started to show. Now taking a certain digestive enzyme combo, I don’t experiance pain easily during my w/o. Pushing through inflammation pain is really horrible. Just look @ the biggest loser contestants. They need someone else to push and yell @ them and get to the bottom of “Why They Can’t.” When I work with my patients who “can’t” work out, I also need to get to the bottom of their attitude and always dealing with inflammation and the post work-out sickness feeling.

LR March 20, 2010 at 4:52 pm

If you never reach your pain threshold you will never make progress. As your fitness level evolves your threshold will increase, making you work harder and harder to breach the threshold you need to reach in order to make progress. People in poor shape experience just as much pain as elite athletes pushing themselves to the limit, because their bodies are not conditioned for this stress yet.

Alecia March 20, 2010 at 5:23 pm

There is always some type of discomfort to be expected or price to be paid for anything worthwhile…right?


Joshwa Frey March 20, 2010 at 10:13 pm

I find that pain tolerance is in a large way about mind to body connection; your body may tell you somthing is wrong when actually there is nothing is wrong at all. It is very much a saftey mechanism which relates to the saying its better to be safe than sorry.
When I am exposed to a sudden shock of pain I see it more effective to try to relax; make an assessment of exactly what has happened (give the area inspection, a rub or a squeeze.) Then preceed to tell my body exactly what is going on.
If I’ve got a bloody great cut then there is something wrong, then pain has done a good job. On the other hand If it’s just a bump or a scratch then I find it best to just say to myself somthing like “the pain is needless/immeterial.” I find that making myself aware that pain is insignificant greatly reduces it significance.

Hugo March 20, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Hello, Rusty. I am a 16 year old junior in high school and I know that i am too young and blah, blah, blah, but I believe that it is never late to get healthy. A have been working out for the past 3 months. i have been following the 6 meal a day diet which did not exceed 2000 cal and working out on separate muscles and to finish it off with HIIT. I was 195 and now i am 180 and i feel like it is to slow for me. For the past couple of weeks and have been following the warrior diet.

this is my workout:
Monday Back, bicep, HIIT
Tuesday chest triceps
Wednesday sprints
Thursday shoulders
Friday sprints

i am not doing my legs because they are huge because of the squats and deadlifts i have been doing for the past couple of months.

advices please

Jason G March 21, 2010 at 12:28 am

As i mentioned in the last article i am doing a “crash diet” where i eat a thousand calories a day or so. i lost 60 lbs last year in five months eating no more than 1500 calories. One realization I came to accept about the skill of loosing weight is the person who can deal with the pain(emotional) of running on very low calories WILL loose weight and lose weight fast.

Mitchell March 21, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Interesting topic, Rusty. It’s funny how your client Linda would claim her condition was the root of her overall resistance to living an active lifestyle. Her being out of shape caused the long-lasting pain and being exhausted/out-of-breath. I know you wrote you used to work with Linda, but have you kept in contact with her?

Bryan March 21, 2010 at 5:34 pm

I am commenting on what Lazarus has said about “letting the pain win” sometimes during a work out. As a physical therapist, this is exactly what I have tried to tell my patients. Its a little different when you are rehabbing from an injury. I usually tell my patients to learn the difference between pain and discomfort.
Its sort of like common sense that pain is an indication that your body may be telling you to stop. However, it’s a little more murky when you’re having pain with a workout. Is it pain, or is it discomfort? This is where body awareness comes into play. Self awareness during a workout is equally, if not more, important as determination and self discipline to push yourself to your limits. Every body has limits. Your self awareness allows you to get to your limits without serious injury.

Riley March 21, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Hey Rusty!

I know you get these messages all the time but I want to give you a big thank you once again!

I’m a young college student and have been following your site for a couple years and it’s totally reprocessed how I’ve viewed body image and health. I was doing stronglifts for a year before I found your site and it gave me a good base but I found, as you have always said with squats and deads, that my legs were putting on massive muscle. Thankfully I heeded your advice and believe myself to be in pretty good shape to this date.

I went through your body weight group program, and I am loving your visual impact ebook at the moment. I have a huge vegas trip planned and will be totally ripped by july.

Thanks again rusty, with your help, eat stop eat, and advice from Mark’s daily apple I can happily drink my face off (with the light beer ha ha) in college and still be in great shape while amazing all the overweight people around me!

Keep it coming!


Guttorm Kittelsen March 21, 2010 at 9:13 pm

To Rusty-About pain and workout:

Hi Rusty, I write to you for the first time, although I have been reading your E-mails for a while. The pain issue is very interesting. I have made some personal experiences with pain and endurance through the last 10 months. I was 135kg (about 297 pounds) 10 months ago. I am working my way down. I have reumathic conditions and arthritis in my joints, especially in my shoulders, handwrists and knees. My ribs are hurting badly, so coughing and sneezing hurts a lot. I also suffer long-term injuries from an accident from being stuck in high voltage (electric guitar mind you), and I can tell you, all of these conditions hurt a lot and I have had to endure chronical pain every single day for the last 25 years.

These pains have been very hard to deal with, and I have been going through depressions and periods of very low self-esteem. For many years the pain kept me from working out because it hurt so much. To get help with my condition I have been in therapy and I have attended rehab institutions for weeks at a time, where working out has been a part of the daily routine.

I never got any better, and I put on more and more weight. Last year I decided (with great support from my family) to start a workout and diet plan, and I signed up for Craig Ballantynes TT-workout 5th 12-week Transformation Contest, so I would have a clear goal ahead of me in my effort to change my lifestyle.

I have been doing well for the last 10 months. I am now 115kg (253 pounds) and I am still loosing weight slowly. I have also put on about 32 kg (70,5 pounds) of muscle, and all in all my fat mass is reduced from 91 kg (200 pounds) to about 40 kg (88 pounds), so I have had to buy myself new pants as the old pants drop right off. That is a good feeling. I have decided not to force anything, but really change my lifestyle, and therefore I will give myself one more year to come down to about 85-90 kg (187-198 pounds). I will then be at the age of 60.

I tell you all this about myself because I feel I have some experience with pain that I hope can clear up a few things, as I don’t think pain from working out for a healthy, fit person is the same sensation or experience as that of an untrained and/or disabled person.

By the way, I won 1st prize in the Craig Ballantynes 5th Transformation Contest, and I came in 2nd in the 6th TT-Transformation Contest. If you look up on the net you find me as Guttorm. There you may read my essays for the 5th and 6th Contest, where you find more details about my background and workout results.

Back to the topic: Pain. I definitely feel pain as different sensations. I must realize that however much I work out my daily body pain is not one bit better. I also have to work through my own pain limit when I start my workouts just to get my body in a movable shape. I work out Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and I do pool training in hot water every Thursday. On the off-days I go for a one-hour walk, do some gardening, snow shuffling or similar.

For me the worst thing in the gym is to get in the position for the workout, that is when the pain is worst. Say I have to lift some dumbells lying on my back on the floor. When I go down on the floor every joint screem in agony. When I lift I experience a different kind of pain, which doesn’t bother me at all. That is the pain of pushing the muscles to the limit. I try to lift weights so that I can do a maximum of 6-10 reps, and I always try to lift until failure. Of course this hurts, but it is a good hurt. I feel the burning and the fatigue in the muscles, and that gives me satisfaction.

When the set is done and I have to get up on my feet another pain kicks in, and this pain is hell all the way. I have to have support from a nearby bench or chair and use my arms to pull myself up. This is the same for all the different workouts I do. The worst thing is to get in position to do the workout.

After the workout, when I get home and sit down, I can feel the sourness in the muscles, but that is a pain that I handle very well. I know it is a result of my workout, and it just feels good. But when I, after a while, have to get up from the coach, my body is completely stiff and unwilling, and the pain in my knees and my ribs, my hips and whatever almost kills me. That pain is very bad and hard to accept.

So why do I work out. I have come to the conclusion that I will never get rid of my pain as defined by my illnesses and accident. Before it made me passive, but through a change in mindset, partly by support from my family and partly from a lot of reading (three hours a day for the last year) I have been able to tell myself that I can do my workouts with my pain because it will be there whether I work out or not. When I realized that, and I experienced tremendous results in weightloss, muscle strength and overall health benefits, such as controlling my diabetes, my bloodpressure, prostata and cholesterol I have gained a whole new life and it is wonderful. My doctor is also very pleased with my results, and it gives me strenth to endure when I get all the positive feedback. So when I write this, it is now 2.15 AM Norwegian time, I am already looking forward to my workout later today.

To conclude this small essay I would say that one must be aware of different kind of pains when one discusses this topic. Pain and pain is not the same thing. Therefore, bodily pain caused by something other that working out should not be taken too lightly. Some people have more pain to cope with than others when working out, that’s my humble opinion.

Best regards from

Guttorm Kittelsen

Guttorm Kittelsen March 21, 2010 at 9:20 pm

The URL for the TT-contest dropped out of my essay. If you want to go there the URL is:


Karsten88 March 22, 2010 at 4:22 pm

I have a question about doing Eat Stop Eat. Can I do weight training and cardio on fasting days? Dont you need something to eat after lifting weights. Or is it okay waiting until next day?

admin March 22, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Okay…time to respond to as many comments as I can in the next hour or so…


I am not in contact with Linda anymore. She really has convinced herself that she is a victim in many facets of life. Unfortunately this takes away her power to change.


I am like you…I get exercise tips while working out, diet advice, etc…I just nod and smile.


Yeah…it does take a buildup of experience to be able to push yourself harder and know what is safe. Good point.


Yeah…it feels good to talk yourself into pushing when your mind wants to quit. I believe it develops mental toughness that translates into other areas of your life. It must be a blast to live in South Beach, by the way.


I had a wrestling coach who was our PE teacher in high school and we had an optional advanced class he would teach to those of us who wanted to get really lean for summer. It was the most brutal workouts I have ever been through, but it has served me well later in life. Good points about coaches, sports, etc.


I have never been in the military, but I imagine some of the toughest training ever. Kind of like a high-school football coach without limitations. I have seen documentaries on the Navy Seals and other military units…and I have always been impressed by the insane workouts these people do.


If I used the heart rate method, I am guessing that I wouldn’t rate very well. It isn’t uncommon for me to hit 175-180 beats per minute when doing rough intervals. Heck…I got done with a brutal cardio routine earlier today and my heart rate is still up quite a bit (2 hours later). It is fun being a little bit of a sicko, don’t you think?


True…I believe you are right about attaching the meaning to the pain. I think maybe if someone isn’t so sure that a tough interval is going to get them great results they are less likely to give it their all. Those with more experience who have already seen great results from a tougher workout, will probably be more inclined to push hard.


If I get sore, I typically try to walk on the treadmill at a medium pace to loosen things up…it does seem to lessen the time being sore.


You make a great point. I don’t push the pain barrier when lifting for strength (sets of 5 reps or lower). I am mainly talking about cardio and intervals…or people lifting higher reps to fatigue the muscle to build mass. I should have mentioned that in the post.


Don’t you think if it was possible to put your brain in their body they would be slim in months? I always believe that it is more of a mind thing than anything else.


Interval cardio used to be my least favorite part of exercising, but now it is my favorite. Diet gets you 80% of the way there to getting lean, but rough cardio gives the body no choice in the matter to lose that last little bit of fat (if done properly).


Very good point. It is so easy to create a goal (in any facet of life)…but it takes a lot to actually do what you set out to do.


Yeah…I didn’t like that other banner at all, but put off getting it changed for close to 3 years. Glad you like it!


As a fighter you probably learn to put up with pain in a big way. Not only are you winded…some other guy is trying to deliver the pain to you round after round. That is rough!


I hope I don’t start a profanity movement in a bunch of gyms 🙂


WOW…that guy is extremely impressive. You work out with some serious athletes. I have never seen someone do a standing back-flip and practically over rotate! Also, that high hurdle jump is crazy high.


Yeah…it probably is easier when you have a definite goal in mind. That is probably the only really big challenge when you are simply trying to maintain. When you don’t have a set amount of weight to lose and are already fit, it can be challenging.


I like your idea of pain tolerance as a skill. That does make sense.


True…when you mind is playing “let’s make a deal”…you have to ignore that voice.


Experience does teach you what is a safe amount of effort. True.


It is unfortunate that many people who don’t have a serious condition like this make it tougher for those who do. It is the same with ADD…some kids really do have it, but my guess is a lot of them simply get diagnosed because they are getting bad grades, are bored in a certain class, etc.


I just got done doing some Treadmill Ninja stuff myself today. Bova’s course is awesome and I really like what he teaches in his course…one of the best out there for sure. Good way of thinking as pain as discomfort or effort…that is a good way to view it.

Donkey Lips,

In complete agreement. I like the idea of training hard and having low calorie days so then you earn days of rest, relaxation, great food, and beer. That is what I focus on when things get rough.


Good for you for hitting the Stepmill (aka the torture machine)…we only have two of these in my gym and after lifting they are always available. I have slowly but surely worked up to the highest setting. I typically choose the interval setting for 15 minutes on level 20. It winds up being 7 intervals and 8 rest periods of a minute each. I am not always able to do the last two intervals on level 20…sometimes I will back it down to 15-16. It takes everything I’ve got!


Yeah…I am talking more about discomfort. Good to remind people of that.


You are spot on about Linda…she has a victim mentality and blames things outside of herself for everything. This unfortunately means she will never be able to do anything worthwhile, unless luck is involved.


I love seeing people with physical disabilities push hard, injured, etc. I love it when people just do what it takes despite what they have been handed in life. I also enjoy seeing overweight people working their butt off…and simply being fed up with the state they are in.


The heart rate method of measuring fitness might be accurate…if it is then I am probably not in the best shape. My heart rate is up for hours after a tough interval session. I like this idea in theory, but I’m not sure how accurate it is.


Wow…I love hearing about winners like yourself who push hard and don’t let MAJOR limitations stop you from achieving your goals. You are 100% the opposite of Linda and I am pumped that people like you read this site. Glad and honored that you enjoy the site!


Another person who simply does what it takes. I feel like a slacker compared to someone like yourself. Great comment!


True…you have to push the envelope more and more to reach the next higher level.


Your workout is fine if you are simply just trying to maintain muscle while dropping body fat. If you are looking to increase muscle strength or add muscle size then you would want to work a different split. From what it sounds like, you already have enough muscle and are trying to lose weight as well as slim down your legs. Possibly add some steady state cardio after the sprints if you want to lose weight at a quicker rate.

Jason G,

The low calorie thing might even be tougher than the toughest workouts. Your mind can play tricks on you and rationalize the need for more calories when you attempt to eat lower calories than normal.


You must deal with people in real pain on a regular basis. When people are recovering they have to push the edge of pain on a regular basis to improve, right? It probably takes the same mental discipline as pushing harder than normal when training.


Thanks for the compliment and I do appreciate nice feedback like this…it makes doing this very rewarding for me, so thanks. You will look outstanding in July for your Vegas trip if you are doing Visual Impact. I can’t wait for June and July when the first batch of testimonials come in. The approach in the course works extremely well for getting in peak condition.


That is an inspiring story…and what you said about pain makes sense. Good job on Craig Ballantyne’s TT contests, by the way. Craig has become a friend of mine and he helps a ton of people through Turbulence Training.


I recommend working out in a fasted state, so this works well. I think the best approach is to workout towards the end of your fast and not the beginning, but you can experiment with both approaches.


Sherah March 23, 2010 at 7:19 pm

“For the final push, I literally told myself, “the only way off the treadmill is to finish, or to pass out”.”

Nate, thanks for posting that. It is HARD to push through that burn, but it’s been good for me to read the various posts to see that this is the way to get those phenomenal results. I’m going to use this as my mantra from now on instead of wimping out at the last few reps.

Jenny March 23, 2010 at 10:46 pm

I found the subject to be interesting because I have a decade+ old “eating disorder” that changed and developed throughout the years. I suffered from anorexia nervosa to bulimia in the form of compulsive exercise to something extremely akin to something called “anorexia athletica.” I hate using labels but I use them to simplify. If I were asked if I ever had an eating disorder, I would say no because I feel that I was EXPERIMENTING through all those years only to find that no way exists to cheat a physically healthy lifestyle. Anyhow, in the most recent stage that I suffer from, I am extremely fit like an athlete even if I am not an athlete. I eat right, have the endurance, strength, flexibility, aesthetics, and most importantly, energy. However, I have paid the price with the health of my heart…it’s ironic…. The point is…of all my years..I think both pain tolerance and physical fitness have much to do with ones level of performance.

Siggi March 24, 2010 at 8:31 am

A very good topic dude. I absolutely believe that “pushing through the pain” is an essential skill to making any real progress. However, it must also be emphasized that this is a skill that can to certain extent become counterproductive, especially as you get older. I think overtraining and injury is very common for people who possess this skill and have great willpower. So it is a skill that must be tempered with caution. But if that IS the case it is certainly a major asset.

Personally, the only proper EXERCISE I do is lifting weights once a week (I also play a lot and stay active). I do a total body workout and it is indeed a gruelling session. But then I rest and recover for a whole week. I get great results using this method, but being able to withstand the pain of the weekly workout is a key part of it.

wolverine March 24, 2010 at 2:17 pm

hi Rusty, i guess iv missed the cutoff for getting answered on this topic, but i will try anyway, i dissobeyed you and add squats to my strenght training routine, i normaly do 5*5 for full body but felt that my upper body was getting very dense and hard but my lower body laggng behind, i normally do cycling intervals and elliptical intervals but this i felt could not really match up to squats, but now i have prolapsed disc and suffering major sciatica pain!!! what to do!!!

Matt March 24, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Good topic ahaha, I always tend to swear under my breath a bit, I got a question for you. I’m 19 and trying to get in good shape for the summer I have been trying to workout hard since January. I am trying to find out what I should be working on, increasing muscle definition or building up my muscle mass to my “natural amount of muscle” that you have talked about in your blog. I am 5’9 and 157 I know I need to loose some fat but I also need to gain some muscle. I do have some muscle definition and strong legs from hockey I have a “athletic” body shape but with some extra fat. Anyways if I want to get a good toned body should I start on muscle mass for a little bit or go right to muscle definition. I am also about to start Eat Stop Eat.

Luke M-Davies March 25, 2010 at 3:43 am

Massive response on this interesting topic – great work Rusty!

So much has already been said so I will keep it brief. I think it is each to their own but from a personal standpoint, I think there is a sadomasochistic element involved. I think some of us are just ‘programmed’ to associate ‘pain with gain’. On the one hand this is probably a little foolish since you can do workouts without battering yourself and still make progress. I used to think the best weights workouts were those in which I ripped up my muscles and felt so stiff the next day. I know now such a meathead bodybuilder mentality was wrong, and you don’t need to feel that ache the next day at all!

On the other hand, I think to make improvements you have to go beyond your comfort zone from time to time and this is where the pain factor comes in. How could any of us possibly improve if we simply run the same pace for the same time etc…?

Jamie March 26, 2010 at 5:34 am

Very interesting post. I’ve never seen anyone approach this topic beforehand.
I come from a military background and we were taught that pain doesn’t exist once in the arena. We were expected (and had to) run while carrying every injury under the sun, from twisted ankles all the way to bullet wounds (although thankfully I avoided the latter).
Now, whenever I exercise I mainly push to my limit, my pain threshold if you will, and maintain that. Recently I’ve started surfing however, and find myself having to push through that pain threshold on a regular basis if I’m to not only get some decent waves, but also benefit from the exertion.
Great post once again Rusty!

anon March 26, 2010 at 11:51 am

In terms of progress I think pain tolerance is not the most important factor. Its the routine and discipline that are most important. Everyones different but for me I know while weight training that I make the best progress doing 3-5 exercises (3-4 sets). I can and have forced my self to do very pain routines but this overtraining doesnt help my physical fitness. It helps mental toughness. Have the right training plan is first and formost. then the discipline to stick to it comes next. pain tolerance affects how you personally get through your work outs.

very interesting topic. I enjoyed reading the posts and original article.

Kelly March 26, 2010 at 7:31 pm

I think that elite athletes not only have a higher pain threshold and push themselves harder than most, but also have the ability to be consistent. It is easy to not exercise on the days that you really don’t want to. The true elite athletes do it anyways.

Consistency and not giving up go a long way in achieving not only six pack abs, but success in anything that you try. It may take longer than you think it will, but once you quit, it’s game over and you will never achieve it.

In the words of the great Winston Churchill, “Never give up, never, ever give up.”

Bob March 28, 2010 at 1:45 am

For people who are fit, the pain is less and its a kind of pain that almost feels good. The body is used to the work load and the pain is the body’s friendly way of saying, “This hurts, but its ok to keep going.”

In Linda’s case, she’s hopelessly out of shape. If she does anything it hurts. her body isn’t used to it so its not the good hurt, its the causing damage hurt. The after pain is not the good kind either. It takes more will to get into shape than to stay in shape. If she’s lazy to begin with and a softy when it comes to pain, she’s not likely to take effective action. Her form is probably hopeless and she may very well be causing damage. What’s easy on the muscle is hell on the joints.

When I slack off and try to pick up again (after say a month or two of being ‘too busy’) and train too hard (or even reasonably hard,) its a bad hurt. If I’ve been doing it awhile and push to what my body can handle but doesn’t want to, its the good hurt (16 miles at one go after 6months of regular running hurt, after a short cool-down walk, I had trouble getting back into the house because my legs were literally jello, but it felt almost good.) When I overdo it, If I’ve been working out, it its nowhere near as bad as when I’ve been slacking (2 months of being too busy left me in the not-good pain category after only 4miles.)

Working out more often lessens the pain, and makes the pain you get easier to cope with. Your body knows what it is and that you aren’t going to destroy it. For those out there who want to start. Do it. it only gets easier with time. Most people train too hard at the beginning. They get discouraged when see people who have been at it for years doing superhuman stuff and become even more discouraged when they find that doing what little they do takes them out for days afterward.

Start reasonable and establish a do-able routine that isn’t going to kill you. You will naturally find yourself pushing a little more as it gets easier. No need to kill yourself, just get into a do-able routine. What you need is a foundation. If nothing else, just do something other than sit and watch TV. If you can’t run 8 miles, run 2. If you cant run 2, run a block then walk the rest. If you cant run, walk. If that’s too much then at least get out of the chair and move around a little. Over time you will find yourself becoming more adventurous and going farther and harder. It often takes a lifetime to get as out of shape as most people are. Exercising isn’t going to produce visable results overnight or turn you into a model in a week, but if you make a serious long term attempt to alter your lifestyle and stick with it, the changes will happen.

katie March 28, 2010 at 1:50 am

Hi Rusty, you have great site.
I am a 21 year old college student weighing 101 pounds and am 5′ 3 “. My whole body is thin however I have a lot of fat around hips to lose as it looks awkward. Unfortunately, after I hit the gym and by just doing cardio for 45 min in total for a week, i have started developing muscle behind my right thigh while my left thigh is still slim. My sessions are: 15 min jogging on the treadmill, 15 on stationary bike, 15 min on the recumbent bike; with all on the lowest level. My diet consists of skim milk with special K for breakfast for lunch whole wheat bread with veg and dinner is salad.
Although, I had remained relatively enthusiastic with my workout plan, the muscle that is popping out behind my right thigh is heart breaking as i had always had slim thighs. Please suggest me how to reduce the muscle of my right thigh to make it slim again and lose the hip fat fast. Pl also suggest the exercises (in the gym) and diet I should follow.

Thank you in advance.

Trainer Momma March 28, 2010 at 9:44 pm

I think it is both. I like to think of it was comfortably uncomfortable.

cinderkeys April 5, 2010 at 1:27 pm

You’re awfully quick to decide that Linda doesn’t actually have fibromyalgia. If she hasn’t been to a doctor who knows something about this disease, she should. Because if she has it, putting her on the same exercise regimen as everyone else is dangerous. “Pushing through” is a very bad idea. And if she doesn’t have it, then she can exercise without fear of those consequences.

Eat Steak Lose Weight April 5, 2010 at 10:17 pm

The F%#^$*#%#^$#%^!!!! Great, now I’m ready to go out and run through a concrete wall.

Seriously, I think this whole subject requires a sense of proportion. For the elite athlete the line between the outer edges of human performance and crippling injuries is a knife edge they walk because competitive performance at a sport is a life purpose. You don’t get the gold medals by not being willing to go farther than the other guy.

Of course this has a dark side, from Andre Agassi’s debilitating back to a Chinese Olympic system that physically wrecks its stars by their mid-twenties.

For most of us reading this, I doubt that competitive sports are an occupation. It’s fun to identify with the athletic stars. As children, I’m sure we all idolized someone (George Brett in my case).

But, I think the first step before setting out on any journey is to identify your goal. Personally, I want my body to look a certain way, have a certain energy level, and be able to perform certain physical feats, like one-arm pushups. If I can get to those goals with less pain or fewer hours invested, then what is the point of in spending more time or hurting more?

Let’s not become addicted to pain and effort. I know there are professional fitness models out there (Rob Riches) who spend just a few hours in the gym each week because they know the exact combination of diet and exercise that works best for them.

Also, knowing the difference between the burn and “Stop right now!” pain is crucial. I went for a cleaning at my dentist’s a few months ago, and the hygienist showed me the scars from her arch operation as a result of running too hard; then, she told me about how she messed up all the tendons in the other ankle by hopping around on that foot instead of riding one of those little scooters. Turned out that the dentist had gotten one of those characteristic bodybuilder injuries and had torn his bicep completely free of the tendon.

Often it seems that ordinary people like this internalize the “no pain, no gain idea” to the point of not listening to their own bodies.

CR June 29, 2010 at 12:57 am


I think that all of us who train need to consider why we are training. Most of us don’t have an immediate or time constraint to develop or physique or performance and therefore don’t need to tear down our muscle fiber rapidly for rapid growth.

Also most elite atheletes have major health issues as they grow older. I personally believe that a little discomfort is OK, but there is really no need to endure pain.

Pain tells us one thing, something is being injured. Invoking emotional distraction through swearing or forcing your mind to think of something ugly or very pleasant simply allows us to take our mind off the pain before us, kind of like the way you think of something different when having Sex if you really want to give your lady a prolonged treat.

I have been doing the PX90 program and although I bring it, I keep it within reason as I have no demand to grow super strong super fast. Most of us just want to stay toned lean and strong.

As always you have raised a fasinating point. The link between pain and fitness. I don’t think the UPS man is sore everyday, but they are all strong as an Ox.

John Richards September 28, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Sorry, but Linda sounds like a right pain! I am not an elite athlete, and know my limits, but boy I do limit my calorie intake based on the level of exercise at any given time.

kamagra October 14, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I think that elite athletes not only have a higher pain threshold and push themselves harder than most, but also have the ability to be consistent. It is easy to not exercise on the days that you really don’t want to. The true elite athletes do it anyways.

Consistency and not giving up go a long way in achieving not only six pack abs, but success in anything that you try. It may take longer than you think it will, but once you quit, it’s game over and you will never achieve it.

In the words of the great Winston Churchill, “Never give up, never, ever give up.”

Gary - Simple Exercises November 19, 2010 at 7:11 pm

I think a high pain threshold must have something to do with cardio strength. If you push yourself through the pain, your workout routine will naturally become easier next time, driving you to higher levels of fitness.

Seane November 30, 2010 at 5:02 am

This is the look of two people who have a fitness and physique to die for. I too believe that athletes have a higher pain threshold as they are accustomed to pushing their bodies to the limits.

Cai - December 10, 2010 at 10:55 pm

This article has been linked back to on!

Quake Fitness – Connecting Fitness and Health blogs!

Do you have a facebook page btw?

sanket January 13, 2011 at 1:54 am

I think a high pain threshold must have something to do with cardio strength. If you push yourself through the pain, your workout routine will naturally become easier next time, driving you to higher levels of fitness.

Josef Stohwasser January 26, 2011 at 5:08 am

You can get used of pain. If you learn that suffering the (productive) pain of a workout is a good thing and you know that it gets you closer to your goals (loosing fat, getting faster and stronger) you also won’t think negative about it. It is a common symptome of our decadent society to go the path of least resistance. For many people it is normal to use a lift instead of stairs, because it is to exhausting. Our ancestors had to reduce food intake for certain periods each year (fastening during spring time). When I tell people I follow the warrior diet, I always get the same answers: “I couldn’t stand the hunger”.

So, as a conclusion: Pain is always a matter of mental discipline and mental attidude and everybody can learn to suffer, if the goal is worth it!

Ryan June 19, 2011 at 7:06 am

Hi, I’m new to reading this blog, which is why I’m commenting on such an old post, I’m working my way through the “best of” articles. I am a Royal Marines Commando (British Elite Forces) and through my experience I have found that there are in fact two different types of people in my line of work, there are those like me, who train very hard, get very fit, and pass our fitness tests because we have practiced and know that we are able, and then there are those who, as you say Rusty, have a high pain threshold, they definately aren’t as fit as my type, if we did a series of gym-style fitness tests, I’m sure I would win every time, but they pass our standards, because they are, as we like to say… tough as fuck! I believe you are correct, some people are just fit, and some people are just tough, some people are both, tht sounds like you,

Sol Hinchliffe July 14, 2011 at 12:20 am

Pain tolerance may be one of the factors, but it is something that should not be overdone. Perhaps you might have sustained some injuries in the past due to exertion and should seriously look into claims for personal injuries; and also to treat them with urgency.

Jenny August 31, 2011 at 2:27 am

I subscribe to the philosophy that pain is my best friend. If a workout is too easy and my body doesn’t feel any strain from doing it, then I have wasted my time. Of course, it is still important to keep track of the level of discomfort and not go overboard.

Kevin September 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I think both of these could go into play. But also, your determination and ability to stick to a goal, lets say you want to burn 300 calories, or run for 30 minutes. If you really want to see a change, and enjoy seeing results, you’re more likely to get to your goal.

You also have to separate good pain from bad pain, such as lower back pain. You may be able to still lift through the pain, but at the same time you should know you could really be messing up your back, and take a break or stop.

It could also be their self motivation to get started, some people don’t know that, at first more pain (soreness) is normal, and need to be told to keep pushing through the discomfort because eventually it will die down to minor soreness. Some people just need that little bit a knowledge and have someone help them get started (such as a personal trainer).

Personal Training Highgate November 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Haha 🙂
I would say def both!

Nice picture by the way, very lean couple.

Tina December 29, 2011 at 9:21 am

You make some great points here. I agree the soreness afterwards is part of it and something to deal with to get results. However, I”m thoroughly perplexed after something that happened yesterday while working out with my Mom’s best friend. Being my Mom’s best friend, she is roughly 20 yrs older than me and I’m in my 40’s. We did a really tough workout, loads of squats, sumo squats, lunges, etc. My legs were like jello and I knew I’d be sore today. She wasn’t a bit sore this morning and I am major sore. Also, I eat way healthier than her, so none of it makes sense. She never got out of breath during the whole workout while I”m huffing and puffing with my jello legs. I’m so curious as to why some of us are just different like that. Any thoughts?

C.H. January 19, 2012 at 11:41 pm

God, thank you for this article. I have been wondering this EXACT thing for the past few weeks. I do what is sometimes pretty intense martial arts training–the instructors push us hard, but they never manage to wear me out to the point of quitting. Even when they totally kick my *ss, I come back for more. In fact I’m pissed and disappointed if they don’t work me hard enough. Part of it is endorphin addiction for sure. BUT, during class I look around at the other students–many of whom have been at it much longer than me–and at some point some of them stop and rest and I just won’t. Is it because I’m in better shape than they are, or because I’m just tougher and can push through the misery? Here’s the thing, you push through on a consistent basis and then you reach a whole new level of fitness. So I think initially, when I first started, it really was mostly toughness, pride, just an unwillingness to quit ever. Now that I’ve been at it for a while and consistently pushing myself, the pay off is that, yeah, now I definitely am in better shape than they are. I’ve really been thinking about this a lot, and like success at so many other things in life it comes down to perseverance, discipline, mental toughness and yes downright pain tolerance. I have it. Many don’t. There’s a reason I’m in better shape than the large majority of people. Getting in shape feels like crap a lot of the time, let’s be honest. But to me that miserable feeling signals that I’m winning. There’s suffering (aka hard hard work) between me and my next level of fitness and I’m pushing right past it. I go up to that door…and then I walk through it. So, if it’s a chicken and egg question I feel like the perseverance and pain tolerance comes first. That enables you to achieve a basic level of fitness before all the other payoffs start to kick in. And then once you achieve fitness, you’ve got this synergy where the two work hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other such that you can begin to approach a truly elite level.

Skyler May 21, 2012 at 9:45 am

This article help me a lot,I have always been curious why my friend Mack could take a punch and feel miniscule to nothing pain related,he told me that working out as much as he did helped with that.
Although,I have a question I hope some one can help me with,I almost never work out,yet,I can lift almost just below 300 lbs,and feel nothing when a normal strength person has punched me 2-4 times.Can anybody help with that?

Karo November 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm

That’s a really nice topic. For couple years I kinda felt that i have some kind of disorder when it comes to the physical pain, cold.. I used to play football (not the american football, the real one.. see what i did there? anyway..), now I am 20 years old, I have choosed education over the sport since only way to get money out of the sport in Lithuania is basketball, women supposed to play that game, but lets get back to the topic. Out soccer trainings were hard, through puke, blood, collapse I kept training because of motivation, team spirit and such. Now, I do train, “sculpt” my body either in gym, playing soccer or jogging and the point of it is that many years as I can remember myself, I used one single phrase: THROUGH THE PAIN. Some people made fun of this point of view, some didn’t had idea why on the earth would you do such a thing and feel happy about going through it.

It’s a very well writen article, I love that point of view. Thank you.

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